Authors: Debra Salonen
Andi's sister looked at her in horror. “What if he suddenly remembers he's a serial killer? How can we let our great-aunt travel alone with him?”
Andi chuckled. She was no great judge of menâas her choice of boyfriends over the years had provenâbut she'd bet anything that Harley Forester was a decent human being with a past no more nefarious than Andi'sâ¦or her sister's.
“Well, it wasn't my idea to have Harley drive Ida Jane home, but it's a done deal. They'll be here any minute.” Unable to resist teasing her sister, Andi added, “Unless he's dissecting her body as we speak.”
Andi was still smiling when she entered the kitchen. She tried to shake off her sense of anticipation at the thought of seeing Harley Forester, as he called himself. A man whoâwhile probably not a murdererâwas definitely no cowboy.
He was an enigmatic stranger playing at being a ranch hand, when anyone could tell he knew nothing about the business. Andi's attraction to him was just a silly diversion.
“I need to get out more,” she muttered as she dashed to the porch. She didn't want to miss her chance to watch Harley getting out of the truck.
He might not be a cowboy, but damn, he looked good in Wranglers.
The idea of a trilogy based on three sisters appealed to me on many levels, but largely because I have two sisters. And, like the Sullivan sisters, my siblings and I are as different as sisters can be. Yet, like the triplets, we love each other and our family wholeheartedly.
This book is Andi's story. Andi was the most difficult of the three heroines to pin down. Outwardly she was the most self-sufficient, but inwardly the most fragile. As a child, she searched for the perfect man to fill the role of father for her and her siblings. As an adult, she joined the marines to broaden her search, but when called home, she gives up that quest to take on anotherâsaving her great-aunt's business and protecting her town from the threat of change. And though her life is jam-packed, she can't resist the opportunity to help a stranger without a past. Harleyâor should I say Jonathanâis full of complexities as well. Leave it to Andi to fall in love with one man when he's really another. I hope you enjoy her story!
And for those of you who've come to expect a dog in my books, I hope you'll like Sargeâa hound with the wisdom and patience to help my hero heal a gaping hole in his heart.
Your correspondence is always welcome. Write to me at P.O. Box 322, Cathey's Valley, CA 95306 or contact me through my Web site at www.debrasalonen.com. Also, I drop in often at the “Let's Talk Superromance” bulletin board at eHarlequin.com. Come by and say hello.
To my sisters in life: Jan O'Brien and Jeanne Harming.
And to my sisters in writing: Alisa, Jen, Sus, Mel, Anna and Ro.
herself to the top plank of the roofing contractor's scaffolding and looked around. Heights didn't bother her, but she hated the slight tremble in her biceps after the minuscule workout.
“Deskitus flabosis,” she muttered, bending over to touch her toes. Her calvesâexposed by the black crop pants she woreâquivered from the climb. Scaling what amounted to a three-story-tall ladder shouldn't pose a problem for a former marine.
She let out a long hiss of disgust and shook her head. The upside-down perspective made her a little dizzy. Slowly returning to an upright position, she moved closer to the roof to see for herself just how bad it was.
Using the toe of her running shoe, she nudged the blunt edge of a moss-covered shake. The thing practically disintegrated. The up-close inspection also revealed a buildup of petrified acorns beneath certain shinglesâdeposits left by generations of woodpeckers planning for that rainy day.
Andi grimly scanned the length of the roof. The fascia around the building's tower was as pockmarked as some of the road signs in the county. In this case, a product of redheaded birds not kids with birdshot in their guns.
“Your aunt should have replaced the roof ten years ago.” Bart McCloskey, Gold Creek's only roofing contractor, had delivered the bad news yesterday. “I told my mother to
warn Ida Jane. But once those garden club ladies get together, all they do is gossip.”
Bart's mother, Linda McCloskey, was a retired nurse who never hesitated to remind Andi and her sisters about the role she'd played in their births. Andrea, Jennifer and Kristin Sullivan had come into the world twenty-nine years ago on the heels of tragedy. Their parents' Volkswagen bus went off the road in a snowstorm, and only through the courageous efforts of the Gold Creek rescue team and hospital staff were the triplets saved. Since neither of their parents survived the ordeal, the triplets became the wards of their great-aunt Ida Jane Montgomery, a fifty-three-year-old spinster and town icon. Residents of Gold Creek pitched in to help raise the triplets, and many were still inclined to give the girls motherly or fatherly guidance at will.
Especially generous with unsolicited advice were the ladies of the Gold Creek Garden Club. Bart's mother was the current president.
Ida Jane Montgomery was still a member, although her attendance had dropped off since her broken hip and convalescence at the Rocking M ranch. But Ida was scheduled to return home to what was fondlyâor not so fondly in some casesâreferred to as the old bordello. A two-story, turn-of-the-century, poor-man's Victorian, the modern white elephant had once been the town's house of ill repute.
By the time Ida's father bought the building, which sat on a quarter-acre lot near what was then the edge of town, the ladies of the evening were long gone. The house had been converted to a boardinghouse for a few years then had sat empty until Ida Jane's fatherâAndi's grandfatherârestored it to a residence. He'd filled the front parlors with the furniture his wife had inherited. Ida Jane had capitalized on her family's pack-rat tendencies and had opened the Old Bordello Antique Shop fifty-five years ago.
At one time a successful endeavor, the shop had fallen on hard times. Andi was still trying to figure out what had happened.
Andi had fond memories of the old place, but she'd left Gold Creek to join the marines after two years of junior college. She'd had no intention of making a life for herself in the small town located in the heart of the Gold Rush corridor.
But Jenny, the oldest of the triplets and an accomplished arm-twister, had had something else in mind. “When your hitch is up, would it kill you to come home for a few months? Ida Jane would do it for you.”
Jenny knew just how to work the guilt angle.
“We both need you, Andi,” Jenny had begged a year and a half ago, when Andi had returned home for Thanksgiving. “Ida Jane won't consider selling out, and I simply don't have the time or energy to help her. And in nine months, I'll have the baby to consider.”
Andi had vacillated until a sonogram showed two babies, then not long after that, Jenny's husband, Josh, started having health problems.
By the time Andi completed her discharge from the marines, Josh had discovered that what he thought was a lingering bout of allergies was something much more serious. Cancer.
Sadly, her brother-in-law had passed away last August, mere hours after Jenny gave birth to Tucker and Lara. Even seven months later, on a bright spring morning like this, Andi felt a pang of sadness for her family's loss.
But life went on. The twins were growing like weeds, and Jenny would soon wed Josh's brother, Sam, in what some people were calling a marriage of convenience. Andi knew otherwise.
Sam and Jenny loved each other. And the twinsâwhile
conceived in spirit by Joshâwere actually Sam's genetically. Josh's childhood bout with cancer had left him sterile, and Josh had asked Sam to donate his sperm. Tucker and Lara were not only miracles of science, but also true gifts of the heart.
And while her sister had agonized over her speedy second marriage, Andi knew that Josh was undoubtedly smiling down on them.
The portable phone that she'd clipped to the waistband of her pants chirped like a strangled bird. Andi hooked one knee over the cross-support rail and balanced her butt cheek on the sun-warmed metal. Flab there, too, she thought.
“Yeah,” she snarled.
“Oh, that's a pleasant greeting,” her sister complained. “What happened to, âGood morning, the Old Bordello Antique Shop and Coffee Parlor?'”
“I reserve that for customers.”
“I could have been a customer,” Jenny argued.
Andi looked toward Main Street. Only three cars traveled the thoroughfare. Sunday mornings were slow and peaceful. That was why, historically, Ida Jane had never opened the shop before one o'clock on Sundays. When the triplets were little, she'd dress them up in matching outfits and take them to the Methodist church for Sunday school, and then the four of them would walk to the Golden Corral for brunch.
“I know your ring. It's bossy. Like you.”
Her sister made a huffing sound. “That's not true. You and Kristin always claimed I was bossy, but somebody had to keep you two flakes in line.”
“Flakes?” Andi cleared her throat. “Kris was the dreamer, not me. Ask anybody. Ask Gloria. In fact, I'll have you know I received an almost-favorable mention in her “Glory's World” column last week. Did you see it?”
Jenny's hoot of amusement produced a funny twinge in
Andi's chest. After all the grief and pain Jenny, Josh and Sam had suffered, it was good to hear her sister laugh. “What planet are you living on? I happen to have the
right here. Should I read it aloud in case those years in the military compromised your ability to interpret a slam?”
Andi rubbed her knuckle against the sudden pain in the center of her forehead. “No, that's okayâ”
But her sister plunged ahead, “âIn other news, or should I say
news, Ida Jane Montgomery's great-niece Andrea is at it again. It's been four months since she introduced her ambitious espresso bar, and while some locals seem to find it as addictive as Starbucks, the tourist trade seems to have forgotten that the old bordello exists.'”
Andi made a face. She didn't know how the bigmouthed gossip hit the nail on the head every time, but Gloria Harrison Hughes was more observant than Andi would have guessed.
Jenny went on. “She also says that a face-lift at the bordello's age is like removing a section of barnacles from the
“And we thought she didn't have a sense of humor,” Andi said dryly.
The Sullivan triplets' war of wills with the acid-tongued Gold Creek
gossip columnist had begun in 1991âthe year Andi, Jenny and Kristin turned eighteen. Gloria's son, Tyler, was a classmate. Unfortunately, he was part of an ugly scandal involving Kristin and her old boyfriend, Donnie Grimaldo. As a result Tyler had dropped out of school and left town. Gloria held the triplets responsible, and the girls had paid the price in bad press ever since.
Andi turned her chin to locate the roof of the
office a few blocks away on Second Street. Two overgrown bushes bearing early-spring plumage bracketed the build
ing's entrance. “So, why'd you call? I told you I wasn't doing brunch this morning.”
Ever since Jenny and Sam had announced their engagement at Christmas, Andi and, occasionally, Kristin, who lived in Oregon but came to visit at least twice a month, would get together on Sunday morning to catch up on the week's business and plan the wedding. The nuptials were scheduled to coincide with the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration this coming Saturday. Although Andi knew Jenny could use her help this morning, she'd needed the time to prepare, mentally and physically, for Ida Jane's return.
Their beloved aunt had served notice of her intention to move home. “I'm going back to the bordello once you get married,” she'd informed them months earlier. “A newly married couple doesn't need an old woman hanging around. Besides, now that I'm up and around, Andi can use my help.”
That would have been the truth ten years ago, Andi thought. But Ida Jane had changed recently. Almost anythingâespecially anything Andi saidâcould send Ida Jane on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Gaps in memory, sudden bursts of anger and bouts of depression were new and unwelcome aspects of their aunt's personality.
“All part of the aging process,” Ida's doctor insisted.
And Ida had shown improvement while living with Jenny, but Andi wasn't Jenny. Jenny was patient, understanding. She could bite her tongue or look the other way when Ida said something outrageous. Andi tried, but much as she loved her great-aunt, she wasn't looking forward to Ida's homecoming.
“I didn't call about brunch. Or the wedding,” Jenny said, pulling Andi back into the present. “Actuallyâ¦”
Her sister was obviously stalling.
“Just tell me.” Andi felt off balance. She gripped the
rusty metal. Its heat reminded her that she had to make a decision about the roof soon.
Maybe I could borrow on my insurance.
“Ida Jane's coming home,” Jenny said.
“Yeah, I know. Next Sunday.”
“What!” Andi's stomach almost ejected the orange juice she'd chugged for breakfast. “No, Jen. Not today.”
“I'm afraid so.”
“Who's bringing her?” Their aunt no longer drove, and Jenny wouldn't have been talking this freely if Ida were in the car with her. Just to reassure herself, Andi stood on tiptoe to check on Rosemarie, Ida's 1972 pink Cadillac. In the parking lot. Right where Andi had left it. The triplets had convinced Ida Jane that she'd arrived at a time in her life when she deserved to be chauffeured from place to place rather than risk life and limb behind the wheel.
“She got a ride,” Jenny said. “She arranged it herself. When the twins and I came downstairs for breakfast, we found her bed stripped, bags packed and Harley Forester waiting to carry her stuff to the truck.”
Andi let out a small squawkâpartly because of her aunt's premature move and partly because the name Harley brought to mind the image of a lanky, too-handsome-for-his-own-good cowboy, who was, in Andi's opinion, absolutely, positively
She forced her mind away from the memory of his trim behind in faded jeans, and the dish-shaped scar on his high, well-sculpted forehead. Why did she care if he was content to hide out from society on Sam's ranch when it was patently obvious to everyone who met him that Harley Forester was an impostor?
“Heâ¦I mean, sheâ¦” Andi started over. “Does she know I'm not ready for her?”
“I begged her to stay, Andi. The wedding's not until Saturday. She's our chaperon.”
Andi laughed at her sister's wail. Nobody in town believed that Jenny and Sam hadn't consummated their relationship.
“I know what you're thinking and you're wrong,” Jenny vowed, her voice low and angry.
Andi would have rolled her eyes but the ache building behind her eyes changed her mind. “I was thinking I really wanted to have the new roof on before she came home. She wouldn't have even known the difference, but now the place is surrounded by scaffolding, and the guys are bringing in a fleet of Dumpsters to catch the rotting shingles.”
For reasons Andi couldn't fathom, Ida had turned a blind eye to the house's steady decline since before her nieces headed off in their own directions. Neither Andi nor her sisters had paid much attention to the old bordello's state of disrepair in high school. They were far too absorbed in the high drama of tragic relationships and unrequited love. Then right after graduation, Kristin went to Ireland to live with their father's sister and her family, where she worked as a caregiver; Jenny moved to Fresno to attend college, and Andi had done her thingâtwo years of junior college with summers spent in Yosemite's high country, then the marines.
Ida had stayed in Gold Creek and peddled antiques from the front half of the old bordello, but she hadn't spent a dime on upkeep. Now, Andi was working against the clockâand a dwindling checkbookâto save the building.
She plopped down on her bottom, letting her legs hang over the edge of the thick plank. She hadn't been rock climbing in years and had forgotten how much she loved the feeling of being above the rest of the world.
“Are you sure you can't talk her into staying a little longer?” Andi asked. “Maybe if Kristin called herâ¦”
“I stalled for as long as I could. I offered to feed them breakfast, but she couldn't sit still. You know what Ida Jane is like when she gets a bee in her bonnet.”